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Court rules for white firefighters, reversing Sotomayor panel

The Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 that officials in New Haven, Conn., violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in throwing out the results of a promotion exam.

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Officials in New Haven, Conn., illegally discriminated against white members of the city's fire department when they refused to honor the results of a civil service exam after no African-Americans qualified for a promotion.

The US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 on Monday that the Connecticut city violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by using race as the key criterion in refusing to certify a group of white and Hispanic firefighters for promotion.

City officials said they were afraid that if they promoted the white and Hispanic firefighters but no African-American firefighters, the city would be subject to a lawsuit by black firefighters. The high court disagreed.

"Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

The high court's action overturns the 2008 decision of a three-judge appeals-court panel that included Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee to replace retiring Justice David Souter.

The New Haven firefighters case – and the Supreme Court's view of it – are expected to play an important role in Judge Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings next month.

The judge is believed to be a strong supporter of New Haven's legal position in the case. In addition, it is unclear why her three-judge panel initially handed down a brief, unpublished, unsigned summary order disposing of the case without offering even cursory legal analysis.

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